The world this past couple of weeks have really gotten me down. I used to think that education, and technology, could help people improve themselves, open themselves up to new experiences, believe new things, try new approaches but now I wonder if all that’s just been talk.

I don’t want to blame this talk:

But in some ways, it’s really galvanized a lot of what I’ve been thinking this past month. About how the work I’m doing is not enough. I’m not fighting for what I believe in enough (by the way, that’s work on the open web, understanding digital literacies, criticizing educational technology for putting us in boxes we shouldn’t be in). I’ve become comfortable supporting other’s work while not doing my own work to push for what’s right.

Semester start up always bring these feelings to the forefront – I keep hoping that someone will step forward and do something interesting and innovative. And we keep falling short of that. I keep falling short of that. This post isn’t intended as a pity party, it’s a blatant reminder to myself that I need to find ways to do the work I want to do, work that’s important to do.

Fusion 2016 Recap

So, as always, D2L’s Fusion conference is a good time. I always learn a lot, but I always have a good time as well. Usually, I like to fly out of Buffalo airport, but the way things worked out I was flying out of Toronto Island Airport (not Pearson, which is the big one that most people use). It was a great experience, but different. I am always really early for flights, and prefer to pay in cash, and at Toronto Island you don’t have to be two hours ahead, and you can’t pay for anything in cash. Oh well, I’ll know for next time. I did run into a ton of people who were going to the conference, including people from Ryerson University, Conestoga College, and the University of Guelph. Jason, a co-conspirator in provocative thinking (or a troublemaker and a friend), was on the plane, and gave me the best compliment on my readiness to get through customs; “you’re such an organized anarchist”.

I knew this year’s conference was going to be a get-up and go quickly kind of affair; the whole deal itself started on the Sunday night, so I had a whole of 6/7 hours before it started to get in some record shopping, a meal, and maybe see a sight or two (I don’t really sight see, I’ve been to New York City half a dozen times and have never gone to the Statue of Liberty, seen a Broadway play or gone up the Empire State Building). Having never been in DC, I scoped out their record store selection (in hindsight Joint Custody was the best of the bunch, but none of them were what I’d call “bad”) realized it all stemmed from U street, and head off that way. I didn’t really get a chance to hunt down some Go Go, but that was due to a lack of time.  After a stop at Ben’s Chili Bowl (doubling for my sightseeing and a meal, because the importance of the restaurant cannot be understated) for a half-smoke (no onions) and a bit of history, records scored, it was time to get back to the hotel, and get situated for the evening conference welcome.

The conference welcome started, I ran into Barry, who I have this kinship with, so we typically hang out as much as possible (which isn’t as much as I’d like) when you consider the scope of this sort of thing. Also getting odd photos with former Premier of Ontario seems to be a thing for me:

After a brief night out, I returned to the hotel, and noticed that I had missed shaving a chunk of hair on the side of my head right above my ear. How did I go through the whole day, talking to people I know, in two different states and a province, with no one saying, “hey, your barber missed a spot”? At a quarter to midnight it was off to the 24 hour CVS to get some disposable razors. My friends are a bunch of jerks. OK, not really. It also allowed me to catch a ton of Pokemon on my stroll, so it was all for good.

Day One

For whatever reason, perhaps it’s my inner competitor, I always like playing D2L’s event games. This year’s app was well built and a neat motivator for me to fill in feedback. I know, judging from how many people stuck around for codes at the end of the presentations, that I’m not the only one.

I was early for the breakfast (getting up at 6 AM for some ungodly reason), so I wandered around the vendor displays and talked to Kaltura and ReadSpeaker about their products (Kaltura we have as a streaming solution for our department needs, ReadSpeaker we have looked at for a while but haven’t had any group on campus suggest they want to foot the bill for).

The opening remarks were good enough – sales pitch for how good D2L is really – but that’s to be expected. I was really interested to hear about some of the success stories that D2L has had over the last year in different areas of the world and education sector. It seems that they’re really pushing into the corporate training space, and an LMS (especially when you consider the work being done in outcomes that they’re investing in) makes sense in that context. I wonder if that diversification of clients is something that will make getting higher education’s needs met harder? Will D2L spread themselves too thin? I guess we’ll find out over the next few years.

Getting Started with Brightspace Data Access

I always try to attend Valence API (now called the Application API) sessions even though I’m doing zero API work – one of these days I’ll get back to the programming stuff I used to do (just in time for my outdated skills to be even more outdated…) because there’s some need to do it. In addition to the Application API, D2L is opening up it’s Data API, so you can access the data storehouse for custom queries rather than using the Application API to periodically collect that data yourself. It only works with Brightspace Data Platform, which is hosted by Amazon Web Services. There’s still some questions floating out there about what exactly is stored in Amazon, and from this session I gather a lot of it is just transaction stuff – so the code to call the data, but not the data itself. If there are data points stored, they would have to be obfuscated. They also mentioned a Data Hub, which allows you to get data extracts (if you’re an Insights/Analytics customer first) in CSV format, so hopefully that means we can run some networking analysis on how people use the system based on extracted data.

Magic Brightspace Widgets

Again, another session that I went to that wasn’t about what I’m doing currently. This one detailed how you can use jQuery and the DOM to scale through D2L’s design of the system to create widgets that change how the entire course looks and feels. Essentially you create code in the middle – which wouldn’t work at scale – but on the course level might be useful. Some really impressive stuff – too bad I couldn’t find the Prezi online anywhere, I’d like to take another look at the examples that Ms. Milanovic at Deakin University showed.

Who’s Got Game? How Badging and Certificates Drives Learner Engagement

Matt Murphy of D2L ran this session, and I wanted to attend as I’m co-running a workshop on Tuesday about badging programs – and I wanted to see what he had to say about badges. Thankfully, he covered a lot of the groundwork about what badges are (using one of the same images I used in my slides!), when to use them and a lot of the foundational work that we didn’t have time to cover in our workshop. Big high fives to Matt for laying the groundwork for us to be able to be successful. And introducing me to Untappd, an app that documents the beers you consume.

Valence Possibilities: Demonstrating Automated Course Setup and Enrollment Applications Supporting Distributed and Centralized Curricular Models

This was an interesting session about how one university uses the API to manage course creations in creative ways (essentially copying from Master courses or Sandboxes on creation). Most of their code was in C#, so that’s not a lot of use to me, but the principles are always good to have a look at.

Keynote by Sir Ken Robinson

I will say, Sir Ken Robinson’s talk was fun, thoughtful, but lean on content. Essentially he riffed on the nature of individuality, and how creativity is a context specific idea, for an hour. An entertaining hour, yes, absolutely. I didn’t learn anything from it that I didn’t hear from his TED talks, or other sessions. I imagine he’s a great guy to get a pint with, and mull over ideas with, but this talk didn’t exactly set my heart ablaze. It was good, and maybe I was expecting that feeling the first time I saw the original TED talk about the ways systems (not just educational systems, but all systems) handle individuality (or creativity in some contexts).

A Night at the Newseum

It was cool to see a piece of the Berlin Wall. Other than that, it seemed very american-centric, and I guess that’s not really a valid criticism as it’s in Washington DC, but I was hoping for insight into how news exists elsewhere. Meh. Back to the hotel to grab a decent pint (as much as I like free beer, Amstel Light as the best beer of the bunch, requires a follow-up with something a little more full bodied) and then head up to finish up some last minute touch ups to the presentation, documents, and other stuff for the workshop tomorrow.

Day Two

Got up, did some last minute touch ups to the presentation part of the workshop for today, reviewed my bits and was early for the Technical Account Manager breakfast. Now we have good relationship with JP, or TAM, so it was neat to have some of the other TAMs around as well to see who else is one. Solution Spotlight was next, this year they announced that they’re giving YouSeeU to all their clients – although we’ll have to see where the data is hosted, what the terms of the integration are, and what the specifications of what we’re getting is. I did note, that this might impact our WebEx offering, or maybe not – depends on which product our faculty and students gravitate towards. Off to sessions.

Reimagining Portfolio Practice: An Audience Led Exploration of High Impact Portfolio Practice

Originally, this was intended to be our Learning Portfolio Program Manager co-presenting with Shane about PebblePad’s flexibility to provide portfolios of different types for different uses, but she retired and Shane from PebblePad asked me to be in the audience should there be a question about integration between D2L and PebblePad. It was a good whirlwind tour of different ways to use portfolios.

Start Your Badging Program Today!

This was the session I co-ran with Lavinia Oltean, who I often introduce as the younger, smarter, better looking, less mustachioed, more organized version of me. This may be the first time in my life I’ve left a session feeling really, really good about it. We hit all our timings (it got bumpy towards the middle) but we got through the bit of an introduction, let them get to work and we had great interaction. I think people came away with a good sense of what could be done with badges, and had a good start in working through what a badge could mean in their context.

Writing Your Own LTI + Combining It With Valence Calls = Solving Unique Problems

I missed the start of this as the end of our presentation leaked into the break and conversations were too good to abandon. The part of the session that I got was that they created a widget that used the API to create a test student account and LTI to connect their API use to Brightspace. I’m not sure why they didn’t simplify it a bit and just use the API to create and enroll the test student account (for faculty to use to view a course), but as a proof of concept it’s pretty cool.

Maximizing the Power of Brightspace: How a College is able to Generate Official course Syllabi from the Learning Environment

Again, I was late for this one as I was chatting with folks that I knew I wouldn’t see again until the next time at Fusion or at the regional conference. La Cite College have an external site that contains their course outlines, and have used the Application API (aka Valence) to read that external database and create a PDF course outline for faculty, automatically included in D2L. This was by far, the slickest idea I saw using the API at this Fusion. Really nice work.

What’s All this Buzzing About Next Generation Digital Learning Architecture?

Rob Abel from IMS Global gave a talk about how the people who help faculty learn about technology will move from an IT support sort of role, to a strategy consultant role as a result of the move from the monolithic LMS to a more distributed, next generation learning environment. His talk was wide ranging, and I’ve found it’s available here:

Keynote by Angela Meiers

I only could stay for 15 minutes because the concierge suggested that we take public transit rather than a cab to the airport. Jason and I decided to go together, seeing as we’re on the same flight and need to be there at the same time. Basically, you matter is what I got from the brief time in Angela’s talk.

The Way Home..

So I admit, there were less interesting run-ins, weird moments, funny things occurring that I’m used to at a conference. And then there was the way home. It got good once we got on the express bus to Dulles. Jason got called a Tom Cruise look alike, I had to get him back on the bus when he got off at a parking lot just outside Dulles (in his defense, everyone was getting off the bus, so it seemed logical), the driver laughed at us, and we had a great chat the rest of the way.

That’s not the end of it. After clearing through TSA in what felt like record time, we were both starving and having an hour before the flight boarded, thought a meal was in order. Of course, the restaurant we choose doesn’t move fast. You’d think that perhaps airport restaurants understand some people might be in a hurry? No? Me either.

Needless to say, Jason settled up (I had cash so no need to wait!) as I ran to the gate, to get on the plane. A minute before the doors closed, he got on the plane. It was a bit of a last minute dash.

A Buffet of Educational Technology Thoughts

If you’ve read anything in this blog, you know that I’m subject to “oh look, shiny!”, constantly distracted and going in one hundred directions. This post will get as close to the way my brain works.

First up, we’re scrapping Blackboard Collaborate as our web conferencing tool and installing WebEx. As a conferencing tool it’s light years ahead in terms of usability and functionality. I’m sure some of our more advanced users will find the quirks, but hopefully we can manage to stay one or two steps ahead of them. We had been Collaborate clients for years, migrating over from a self hosted Elluminate install.  Over time, the product, and it’s terrible Java interface, caused our users issues. We did integrate it directly with our D2L installation, which solved a lot of the interface issues, but then we’ve been hit with conversion errors that can’t be fixed by the user but prompt a ticket to Blackboard support. While Blackboard support have been excellent in this particular case, they haven’t been great over the years. Combine that with the fact that Blackboard has been promising a lot, and not producing a whit of evidence that they’ll be able to pull it off. If they weren’t so big, I’d be calling all their promises vaporware, but I fully expect they’ll be able to deliver eventually. It’s the eventually part that’s the problem.

Second, I’m working through how we can roll out blogs effectively to faculty who want their students to blog, but want a campus install to do it from. I know WordPress Multisite is the way to go, but it’s going to be a slow going process as we need to work with other groups on campus to make this one happen. I personally think that having an academic blog is an important piece of the process of going to University and becoming an academic – how else do people disseminate their findings to the public without the filter of a news organization? How else do academics form their own personal learning network? I’m a huge believer in blogging as a form; and I see it as a reflective practice more often than not. It’s also a space that I can use to see how ideas sound, and it helps me articulate ideas better (by slowing my brain down to typing speed, which is much slower than my mouth goes).

Third, is the upgrade to Turnitin, will practically force us to convert our existing connection between D2L and Turnitin to the new LTI connection between the two parties. As always, this is a last minute addition to our semester startup, so it’s an added complexity that we didn’t really want to think about but will have to consider over the next few days. While Turnitin is forcing everyone to upgrade, there is an opt-out process, but from what I know (and I’ll know more later this week when we chat with our academic integrity office) we don’t know what that really means? How does opting-out effect us? Can we revert if everything craps out and nothing works post-upgrade?

Fourth, I’ve been asked to sit on a portfolio advocacy committee, that will push portfolio use to “the next level” campus wide. I have a few ideas, but I’ve never been fond of sitting on committees, more fond of the work that needs to get done out of the committees. I guess it’s progress when you have someone who knows what it takes and whether it can be done currently, rather than facing down the fact you can’t do what you had proposed due to technical feasibility. My boss is sneaky good at eliminating my ability to point the finger at other people’s decisions, so I guess this one will partially be on me.

Designing Digital Badges

The idea of designing a digital badge should be daunting. Much like how there’s a lot of discussion that web design is too complicated now (with front-end specialists. back-end specialists, UI, UX, branding, Javascript rockstars, and so on), designing a badge is a complex task. With a learning outcome, it’s fairly straight forward, you gather together a couple of sentences that express what you hope the learner to accomplish in a period of time. I’m drastically simplifying the writing of a learning outcome, because there’s great nuance in a truly well-written one. And there’s lots of ambiguity in poorly written ones…

With that said, badges are much like a learning outcome, plus all these other, sometimes complex, visual ideas that can entirely sabotage your badge before anyone has earned it. Is the badge ugly to the one who might earn it? They’re unlikely to be motivated and it could turn them off learning in your context.

With all that said I’m not a design expert, but I have bookmarked quite a few sites that give differing opinions on what a shape, color, design or visual idea might mean. If you’ve studies semiotics, you’ll fully understand that this is really a brief and cursory view of a deep and nuanced subject. If you’re a visual designer, you’ll really understand that there’s a lot for people to dig into with building a badge. This is just a taste to get your palate satiated, just a start to get the creative ideas flowing…

Understanding Shapes Better

Understanding Colour Better

Online Badge Design Kits

Badge Design Worksheets

Free Icons



PebblePad (Academic) Year One

So as we round out another academic year, now seems to be as good a time to talk about my view of PebblePad.

In this first year, I created 9000+ accounts, who logged in to the system a total of almost 39,000 times (I only count for 319 of those!), working on a total of 8700+ workbooks, or one of 12,500+ templates; creating 9700+ portfolios and submitting almost 7300 things for assessment in 99 active workspaces (PebblePad’s language for a course space). Personally that resulted in 37.5 hours of overtime, 30 consultations with at least 20 different faculty and 30 presentations to students from as few as 20 to as many as 200.

PebblePad has received one major upgrade (and one forthcoming in a few weeks), and a couple of minor patches. The upgrades were smooth as silk from an administrator perspective, because they happened in the wee hours of the morning and were usually done by the time I logged into the system as part of my morning ritual.

How’s it been? Busy. The work in the previous paragraph has been enough to keep me busy were it my only task, but in this time I’ve also had to support the LMS, and bring badging online (that, alone is another story that will be blogged about shortly). I did crunch some numbers and I spent approximately 75% of my time on ePortfolio related work – whether that be documentation, consultations or working with the tool itself.

The administration of PebblePad is dead simple because there’s very little beyond the initial configuration (in fact, I’ve only been back to look for the Turnitin linkage and to run monthly reports). The only glaring thing missing is that the system can’t tell you how many people logged in during a month long period – but I can get that information by looking at the last 28/30/31 days activity page, on the first. It’s not exact, but it’s close enough for now.

I did notice throughout the year that there was very few inquiries from students about how to do anything. They didn’t contact me anyways. They might’ve gone to instructors, but anything complex that had to be done usually had accompanying documentation or a video. I do know that most of my support requests were about getting their login credentials (the system was not connected to our central authentication system for the academic year – due to technical issues we’ve been having that’s mostly out of our control). That issue will be out of the way this month, so it should be clear sailing for folks next year.

We had people use PebblePad (well, Pebble+ specifically) for the sort of thing you’d expect a portfolio platform to do – collect disparate experiences, assemble them into a coherent statement about the experience or themselves and submit it for assessment (or credit for an experience). We also had people use portfolios as a way to assess (and have students self-assess) against programatic outcomes. We also had a few rogues use the peer grading capability of Atlas (the assessment piece of PebblePad) without using the portfolio piece at all, which is great that people are pushing the envelope so early. We had a group use PebblePad as the platform rather than the LMS as they had previously done. We have a group using PebblePad to replace existing paper based workbooks with digital ones. All good foundational work in our third year of ePortfolio/Learning Portfolio initiatives on campus, and the first year of PebblePad.

What could I have done better?

Well, I think I could’ve pushed for more help to ensure that some of the things I did were done the right way. For instance, I ended up doing too much work for faculty, instead of them being trained on how to use the system well and then letting them configure and play. Part of that was the late starting date of the system (September 2nd) – part of that was me trying to make things easy for people – so they could focus on teaching rather than the technical stuff. I wonder if I’ve set a terrible precedent for taking on too much work, which will make the sustainability of what we do, untenable?

I could’ve asked better questions about why students were doing this, rather than getting on with the work – I do that in other aspects of my job, so why I didn’t really challenge people with portfolio work is a bit puzzling. I suppose it could’ve been that there was just so much to do, that I didn’t want to get into it with many people. That has to change. Even though I’m not an Instructional Designer, sometimes I’m the only person (along with my colleagues who hold the same title) instructors will come to with their ideas about using technology.


Technology Has Missed Education During the Internet Age

Holy crap! My entire life is a sham! The whole Web 2.0 thing we’ve been writing about for years, didn’t exist! OK snark over. I’d like to point out that this, very slanted to favour the current VC funded educational technology movement, written by a guy who could profit greatly from moving cash out of public education into his privately controlled hands (and we can talk for hours if that’s a good idea or not). I would’ve responded there, but TechCrunch requires you to sign in with your Facebook account, and that’s my personal life attached to that service, not my professional one. Oh well, the flame wars would’ve been epic. Here’s the first juicy quote…

Despite its importance, education seems to have been missed by the Internet revolution. When I walk down the hall of a middle school, not much seems to have changed since I was a student some 15 years ago.

OK, the halls won’t tell you anything. The halls are going to be the same. Although if you were there when students were in the halls you would notice the very common sight of a smartphone or even the odd tablet. But you’d actually have to look for that. However, if you look in the K-12 classroom, you’ll see a lot more instructors using different types of technology. The most interesting change will not be in the schools at all, but in the student’s home, where they connect to the school board LMS, or look up things to help them understand on the Internet at their teacher’s request. Some more advanced teachers (and you can look squarely at Google’s Teacher Academy and awards, Apple’s Certified Educator, Microsoft’s Teacher Academy to see evidence of the contrary). If that doesn’t really hold water for you, what about TeacherTube, EduBlogs or any of the other K-12 friendly sites that have existed since the mid-2000’s?

Luckily, that is changing. There are a growing number of entrepreneurs working to reshape education. Every year, thoughtful new solutions come online to solve a piece of the problem. Innovators are working hard to create students who can learn how to learn, who can think critically and who can lead.

Correct, things are changing. Entrepreneurs trying to reshape education is a real threat to education, much like how hypercapitalism is a threat to our sovereignty. Entrepreneurs will only seek to reinforce the common pedagogies – ignoring those who are working in collaborative or communal modalities. Capitalism likes behaviourist, didactic pedagogies as they’re easy to replicate in a software environment. Thoughtful solutions? No. Profit opportunities? Yes. And 99% of them fail. Look at the first EdTech boom (circa Web 2.0, or 2005) and how many of those companies have lasted? Very few.

But before we can talk about the future, let’s review the past…

Sure, but I don’t trust you to get it complete, right or even anywhere close to objective. Ignoring that just over half of the graphic deals with pre-industrial revolution, and ignores the Gutenberg Press; why do we need to know about pre-industrial revolution information, as education was a privilege of the rich – it could be argued up until the 1950’s but that’s an entirely different blog post – and a radically different thing? Oh, the cherry-picked examples (much like what I’m doing here) are problematic at best, misleading at worst. In between 1996 (when the White House offered 1 billion dollars for computers in schools) and 2006 (Khan Academy) nothing happened.

Except a whole lot happened. There’s this thing called the LMS that happened. Video taping lectures (a practice dating back to the 1970’s) and digitizing them on CD-Rom, then DVD, then on the Internet, happened. Several ePortfolio companies started. Oh yeah this thing called WordPress. What about Wikipedia? Yeah, nothing important there. Open Source software doesn’t really work in a venture capitalist world.

…and the current edtech landscape.

Misses so much that you’d hardly have time to write out what it misses.

Luckily, there are some great companies who are working to change this by focusing on helping parents give their children a solid educational foundation. The space is dominated by apps and gamification, which appeals to children’s natural curiosity and provides research-driven cognitive and non-cognitive activities to help facilitate development. On-demand app-based learning is a great supplement for families who cannot afford pre-K.

It’s not luck, it was a gap that is perceived by startups, and a few companies made a few apps that were decent for pre-K. I don’t know about pre-K efficacy, but I do want to question the idea that poor people are using apps because they can’t afford pre-K. I’d suspect that poor people aren’t using anything because they can’t afford the devices that apps run on, nor the monthy fees (if they exist). So the people using these apps are probably those who would be able to help educate their children, pre-K or no pre-K.

Also the space is dominated by apps because there’s no organization to sell enterprise level software to.

The common school was built for everyone. It was open to all races, classes and backgrounds. It taught a common curriculum to every student. It was designed to process thousands of students and get them to a base level of competency. It was the era of mass production’s answer to educating a mass of students to prepare them to enter the workforce.

While it was built for everyone, it most certainly was not open to all races (uhhh, segregation?) or classes (often the poor chose to send no one to school because the farm needed workers). This whitewashing of educational history needs to stop. Mass production didn’t start in the post-civil war era, it is commonly associated with Fordist principles, which coincide with the factory assembly line in 1910’s. Also, this whole passage glosses over the societal uses of school – socialization, networking, collaboration.. of course it does.

But the era of the assembly line is over. We are in an age of mass customization, fueled by technology. Seth Godin recently asked, “What is school for? If you’re not asking that, you’re wasting time and money.” We need to question the traditional approaches to education and embrace new modes of learning to help create the next generation of leaders.

To create the next generation of leaders? Leaders develop themselves. We don’t need to target leaders, we need to target the other 99%. Seth Godin sucks. You have to ask what is school for to understand what purpose it serves in society (hint, it’s not to create leaders), not to use time well or earn money. At least one thing is right here, mass customization is here, but if we’re just swapping UI interfaces over the old teaching methods, are we really improving things? I don’t think so.

Students are going to university because it is “the right thing to do,” often without a thought to the ROI on their education or the work opportunities after school. Only 19 percent of full-time college students graduate in four years, which dramatically increases the cost of their degree.

Why does education need to have a ROI? It’s not a business, it’s an education. The graduation in four years trope is problematic yes, but it’s mostly because students are working more than previously, just because of the cost of education, and can’t afford to not work. Part of that is the privatization of schools, part of that is the outsourcing of public funds into the hands of profit motivated companies, part of that is the rising costs of administration and part of it is the slowness of universities to adapt to a five year model rather than four. None of these problems can be fixed with an app.

Over the past several years we’ve seen the rise of the modern edtech industry. There have been massive investments in the space, and the success of these firms will dictate the future of the edtech landscape.

More successful exits (like Lynda) will help to propel the industry forward. Investments in the first generation of edtech have also made it difficult for the second generation of companies to attract investment, as investors have been watching this first cohort closely to gauge results.

You do know that Lynda started in the mid-90’s right? You know in that gap you illustrated between 1996 and 2006? It’s “exit”, to which I can only assume means the purchase of by LinkedIn as a value-add to users of LinkedIn, which hasn’t worked out quite so good for them. If you believe that the purchase was meant to prop up the value of LinkedIn’s stock, like some do, then really it’s not about education at all, but finance.


Digital Marginalia 3 – Connective Tissue is Key

I ran across a scrap of paper that I had scrawled two ideas on:

“Aesthetics help inform people of the usual cues for identity. They identify a person as as a participant of a culture”.

The whole idea that aesthetics are a cultural artifact that I haven’t thought about for probably ten years. So it lead me down a rabbit hole of thinking about aesthetics as a white thing – as in a racist artefact of a dominating culture. Then I ran across a Washington Post article about film and the inherent racist qualities of the technological process (film and lights calibrated for white skin rather  than a multitude of tones).

I started thinking about how we (and by that I mean white people) end up designing software, websites and apps from that privileged perspective. I haven’t really dug deep enough to think about it more than a passing thought, but I wonder about these things when I have some moments alone. It’s not a comfortable space as I’ve always prided myself as being an anti-racist sort of fellow.

“There is only one literacy – the one item that you need to be literate is just in different forms.”

I think this is from Stephen Downes, or it could be from someone else. Whoever said it, that resonates with me right about now.

I’ve been working on using D2L’s Valence API to extract an entire course’s discussions for network analysis, and found Philip Larsen’s Presentation from Fusion 2014 (which I attended, but not that session, dammit!) which will pull the data out, and then I’ll use PHP to create a CSV for input into the network analysis tool. There’s not that much more to write about as I’m basically using the existing project carte blanche and do some heavy lifting after the fact.

2016 Horizon Report for Higher Education

So I seem to only write about the Horizon report in even numbered years – for other looks what I’ve thought here’s 2014’s Horizon Report and 2012’s Horizon Report. For the record, I’ve though this report missed a lot because it looked solely at trends without a passing nod to history, how technology has impacted education (especially systematic education like higher education) or even a passing wink at the fundamental challenges for technology in education.

This year, they did actually change the structure of the report a bit, and it now factors in some challenges. That’s a positive change.

One of the challenges that they think is solvable is the blending of formal and informal learning (I guess one could distill that down to “learning”, but that might be a tad reductionist). I’ve written before about the challenges of institutionalizing informal learning (and thus changing it to formally accepted learning, which changes the nature of the thing), but we’ve seen some interesting developments on this front – especially when you consider how open badges can play in this realm, where groups who value prior learning can award a digital badge based on whatever criteria they set. Sheesh, that sounds like a learning outcome or something. It’s too bad that the Horizon Report totally glossed over that fact (even though one of their case studies, for Deakin Digital  does exactly that.

Also under solvable challenges is Improving Digital Literacy… which I think is actually a difficult problem to solve as you’re going to be “teaching” this as a moving target. What literacies in a broad sense encapsulate are useful as guideposts, but do jack squat for the translation of those literacies to skills (with specific tools) that is the real thing that can be measured. Never mind that tied into this context of improving digital literacy is also improving access for all (not just white North American and European folks, who are disproportionately active online when compared with worldwide access), and not access in a Facebook-preferred context either. The bigger issue that gets uncovered with digital literacy is much like literacy in the recent past. Literacy has a color, and a privilege that we cannot ignore. Except this time, I don’t see any Great Awakening.

So, in my opinion to solve digital literacy, you have to solve some of the inequalities in society, which are built upon the hypercapitalist notion that people have a monetary value, and once society has spent more on the person than they’re worth, there’s no use for them. So social handouts, programs and the like get cut. OK, off the soapbox.

I also really wonder about the personalized learning entry under challenges – because we barely understand what people need to learn (and don’t get me started about how best to help people learn). How can we truly personalize learning if the person doesn’t necessarily know what they need to know? So I have concerns about the idea of personalized learning, but I’m very interested in helping people figure that one out. Really, personalization is an engagement strategy that almost always works. We know that making something relevant to a student will get them engaged, hell, even excited to participate. So maybe we’re not looking for personalization, but relevance?

D2L Badging

So, I’ve been poking around with D2L’s badging/certificate since it was unveiled in September (and actually writing this blog post since then!) on our test instance and it’s been a fun thing actually thinking about and configuring a new tool. It’s been so long since I’ve actually spun something new up – that I had to really work the part of my brain that frankly hasn’t been worked in a long time – the “what if?” part. What really stinks is that with badging we actually don’t want to have every instructor available to create badges. That simply means controlling access to the tool via Navigation Bars (which we don’t allow our instructors to change) or creating a new role. Either way is a bunch of manual work for me.

The one big problem, and this isn’t by any means a knock against us, is that I haven’t had time to properly configure this on test in a way that makes testing easy – I’ve just been too busy working with ePortfolios and PebblePad to take the time. Thankfully there’s documents like the Assessments Administrator Guide on the Brightspace Community that help a lot when working through the user permissions (which frankly are poorly documented) and what used to be called DOME variables (now Config Variable Browser). So we’ve slowly got the technical side working and we’ve run into a huge issue that could conceivably cripple the whole damn thing. Issuing a certificate or award (or digital badge) means that we’re giving power to instructors that Registrar’s previously held very closely to themselves. So, we’ve devised a way to do this without ruffling institutional feathers – and with a way to control how the badges are used.

We really want to avoid badging as another way to give grades or learning outcomes. There is already a wealth of tools in the LMS that do this (uhhh, Grades and Competencies/Outcomes) so do not recreate what you already do and add a pretty picture to it. That is useless, and students will inevitably find badges useless in that context. More importantly, external parties will find badges useless, which if you really want badges to hold some value, then you will need external people to value them. Giving a badge that says you got an A in a course, is frankly useless (as useless as the A is in determining what a person is capable of or knows).

So as an institution we are looking at ways that we can ensure that people using badges are using them in ways that actually contribute to the student experience, by either awarding badges that have no representation elsewhere (like experiences that could make up a part of a co-curricular record) or awarding badges for skills that are not explicitly found within the core curriculum. Students already have a transcript that uses grades as a way of communication ideas about broad topics. Students should have learning outcomes that syllabi tell them are the important aspects of those courses. Don’t bother recreating the wheel – higher education already has a few that work well enough. Focus on what doesn’t get communicated already.

Our initial plan was to have training help people through this process and when they complete the training, they can then issue badges within their courses context. We’re still doing that – but with an added wrinkle. By the end of the workshop, instructors have designed at least one badge, thinking through the visual design (and sketching it out), the implications of what a digital badge means, how this badge might connect to external groups, what criteria or release condition will issue the badge and finally, how they might value badges coming into the course from other sources.

All of this on paper. Then people can have a serious thought about how it’s technically going to happen. Essentially it’s a two hour enforced planning session.

What will inevitably come up is that some forward thinking instructor will ask “what if we want to have students give each other badges?” and the answer will be “they can’t (providing that the student role is configured in a typical way that controls access to courses)”. It’s a huge gap that’s not a problem with the tool, but with the design of the LMS.


First Month (and a bit) of PebblePad

It seems that the basic uses of an eportfolio platform are easy as pie for our campus. We’re now at the mid-to-highly complex uses that I thought we might see before this – which begs a question. Is it that no one wanted to push the boundaries of the older system, or was it that the boundaries weren’t worth pushing? Or maybe we weren’t ready to push? I’ve often said I’ve built a career out of workarounds and getting systems to do what they weren’t meant to do. Unfortunately, it’s getting harder to do that – with LTI and ubiquitous acceptance of embed codes from social sites – there’s not a lot of need to bend systems.

However, getting acquainted with a new system (full caveat I had access to the older version of the system for almost two months before PebblePad was turned on September 2nd), while trying to wrap my head around some of the complex asks has been challenging for an old brain like me. For instance, wanting peer marking, peer review and feedback, but not allowing other peers to see the graded assessment or the graded feedback, yet allowing for a commentary feedback to exist on the item, and the assessor can provide a final grade based on the accumulated individual feedback from other students. In a class of close to 80 students. Turns out, not a problem. Even with some initial missteps, it was relatively simple to setup and have working (with some significant help from PebblePad support).

Flexibility for what students can do in the system? No problem. We’ve got one class that’s given workspaces to all their project groups giving them full access to that area to configure how they like. They just can’t remove managers (the instructors) or give grades. They could if their role was configured for it, and the instructors wanted that. That kind of power in a system is really something I’ve missed with the major LMS vendors (and believe me, I’ve asked for the power to give instructors the ability to give students a sandboxed area to add their own content, create their own assignments, etc. etc.). We’ve got another doing peer review. We’ve got another doing typical portfolio stuff – where the student assembles a portfolio and submits that to a lone marker.

I don’t want to sound like a pitch man for PebblePad, but honestly, in a decade plus of working with learning systems, putting in tickets and generally working with educational technology, I’ve never had better service than I do with PebblePad. Tickets are answered intelligently within 24 business hours, most often resolved within that time. Now maybe that’s me, finding easy problems to solve… but only one ticket has lasted longer than a week, and it was to do with the iOS app that was mostly waiting for Apple to approve the app’s update. Which is a huge testament to the people working at PebblePad.

With that said, we’re working with version 5 of PebblePad, and I’m starting to get at some of the limitations. The first one, is that you can’t embed anything into the system except YouTube videos. Students just don’t use YouTube – in fact many use Vimeo, Prezi, Slideshare, Vine and any number of other sites would be nice to embed that right on a portfolio page rather than link it. Now, having spoken to them about it, they’ve stated that they will look at it and see if there’s something they can do to branch out from just YouTube (I suggested adding Prezi, Vimeo, Slideshare, and a couple other ubiquitous sites). There was some security concerns about rogue embeds, but I’m sure they can figure out a solution. Most of the limitations I’m seeing currently will be gone when version 5 and 3 have parity in February – and some were addressed in the November 15th update – again a good thing to see with a company.

So over a month in, I’m really, really impressed. I don’t often get ebullient with external companies (in fact I’m usually very critical of edtech capitalism), as I’ve seen companies grow and what that growth means for the clients,  I hope the future is as bright as the present.

Full disclosure: I was invited to attend a week’s advanced training at PebblePad HQ in the UK. My work paid for the flight, Pebble Learning paid for a week’s accomodation as well as meals and drinks. I don’t think that my opinion can be bought with a week’s accomodation and food (we did have a lovely time), nor change my opinion of the product. Your opinion and mine may vary.